In "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" by Yeats, who is the speaker?

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iandavidclark3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death," W. B. Yeats writes about an Irish airman (a pilot, in other words) who predicts his eventual death fighting in World War I. The speaker in the poem is the Irish airman himself, as the compact piece is made up of the pilot's thoughts about the war, Ireland, Ireland's subjugation to England, and the meaning of his probable death in battle. 

Many scholars and readers have noted that the pilot in the poem is probably based on a real person, one Major Robert Gregory, who was killed fighting in World War I. Gregory is not, of course, mentioned directly in the poem, but Yeats was particularly close with the Gregory family (especially Lady Gregory, who helped Yeats with many literary endeavors, such as the famous play, Cathleen ni Houlihan), so assuming the airman in the poem is Major Gregory is perfectly logical. However, whether or not the speaker is Major Gregory is somewhat superfluous. What's really important here is that Yeats is giving us the psyche of an Irish man fighting for a country he does not care for (England) in a war that probably will not affect Ireland's fortunes in any meaningful way. It's this conflict of interest that makes the coming death particularly tragic. 

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